Jharrel Jerome was born in 1997, about eight years after the Central Park Five made headlines. But “something went off in my head — it was like a bell that rang,” says Jerome when, in 2017, he spotted director Ava DuVernay’s Instagram post about her plan to write and direct a limited series about the true story of teenagers wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for the assault and rape of a female jogger in Central Park.
After that, Jerome made it his mission to land a role in DuVernay’s Netflix series, “When They See Us.” “I’m Dominican, from the Bronx. These are boys who come from where I’m from, they look like me. It gave me the chills.”
Persistence paid off. In July, Jerome, best known for his role as young Kevin in Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” received a limited series lead actor Emmy nomination for his critically acclaimed portrayal in “When They See Us” as Korey Wise, who, though 16 at the time of the assault, was tried and sentenced as an adult and spent 11 ½ years in prison.
Recently, in a West Hollywood dressing room, Jerome spoke to The Envelope about being the only actor to play his “WTSU” character in two timelines, hanging out with his real-life counterpart, and discovering that there’s such a thing as too much steak.
When did you learn you’d play Korey both as a teenager and as an adult?
I was doing another project and [I had a beard] when I auditioned via self-tape. [Ava] liked the tape but her note back was, “Can he do it with no [facial hair]?” So we went to production. They said, “No.” The day after we wrapped, I shaved and went to meet her. She had this look on her face like, “Whoa,” and said, “Aren’t you 30?” and I said, “No, I’m 20.” She ended up giving me the [monologue from Part 4] that same day in the room.
Describe playing a skinny adolescent during the day while spending your nights prepping to play grown-up Korey.
Working out has never been a part of my life. But Ava wanted me to look like I’d spent years in prison. So during Parts 1 and 2, I’d do eight hours on set, then go to the gym for two hours. Then while they shot Part 3 — which Korey isn’t in — I had 3 ½ weeks off. I had six trainers and was eating 3,500 calories a day. Just imagine [eating two] plates of rice, steak, green beans, mashed potatoes. I love eating but when it became a job, it became grueling. There was lots of throwing up, days when I didn’t want to get up from bed. Lots of time I felt like, “This is too much for me.” Then I’d think about what Korey went through for years and go, “I can do three weeks at a gym.”
Music plays a part in your preparation, yes?
I like to make a playlist for the characters I play. I learned that from Lovie Simone, who is on “Greenleaf.” Before you go on set, you listen to it and it’s like listening to what your character would listen to. So at the time, in 1989 …
Eight years before you were born …
… [laughs] Korey wouldn’t be listening to Drake, he’d be vibing to Big Daddy Kane, Big Pun, A Tribe Called Quest, N.W.A. Old-school hip-hop music. My makeup guy, Dave Presto, got into it. He was like, “I’m going to play it too.” So the makeup trailer was bumping old ’90s songs the whole time.
You’ve said that your trickiest scenes involved pre-prison Korey. Why?
It’s hard to find out who he was. There’s no footage of Korey before he was incarcerated. If you see him at 16, it’s only behind a desk being interrogated. Was he fun? Smooth? Quiet? I knew how to play the older Korey. Meeting him I could see the pain he went through — and that some of young Korey still lives inside of him. He’s so full of life, exuberant, loving. He’ll come up to you and just give you a hug. If he’s like that today, I can’t even imagine what he was like before the system tried to strip it off him.
There’s a thread that’s suggested but not fully explored in the series, that Wise had learning disabilities.
It’s not explored in depth in the show because it’s not explored in his life. If I’m not mistaken, he didn’t find out until he was incarcerated and seen by prison doctors that he’s half deaf in one ear. To this day he struggles with grammar and language. We’ll text and a lot of his texts will have misspelled words or mumble jumble.
Is it true that Wise was pen pals with Matias Reyes, the man who confessed to the rape?
He kept in contact with him for a while. My initial reaction would be a punch to his face. Or, “Oh my God. I hate you. You’re the worst human.” But Korey was actually extremely grateful for Matias. He always says, “Matias Reyes is the man who saved my life.” He has nothing but love.